The controversy over Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt—about who has the right to tell a story, the “White Gaze” of writers, and about the self-referential, exclusionary arbiters of mainstream publishing who dictate what is written and promote what America reads—has divided the writers I know into partisans.
In one camp, those who defend their right to create any story and character that captures their imagination. In the other, those who view the writing of stories by those who haven’t directly lived the experience of the characters and the fiction they create as cultural appropriation and cultural misappropriation.
As a writer of two novels populated by multicultural characters—immigrants, exiles, itinerants, Americans rooted here or living peripatetically as foreigners abroad—I stand in the middle, not without opinion or judgement, but calling for an embrace of nuance, asserting that writing fiction beyond our own individual experience is not a cardinal sin.
Perhaps I’m being self-serving, protecting my own interests as a novelist. I write a hybrid genre—socially and politically engaged literary fiction. My interests are varied. I am interested in human and civil rights, and am acutely sensitive to the vulnerable and the dispossessed and those who abuse them. The characters in my novels are sketched, drawn, and informed by people I’ve known, read about, or imagined into being through meditation and reflection, after conversations, interviews, and research; and detailed or shaded with my own and others lived experiences.
The question of who has the right to tell a story is a difficult one in a post-modern world of mass migration and collision. I’m a naturalized American, who has lived on three continents, in multiple countries, and between cultures. My parents were part of the Christian Indian diaspora that branched out across the globe for love and work. I spent my teens in rural England, where sheep dotted the landscape like in a Victorian novel; and my youth in London, where every third person I met was from somewhere else. I married into a culture not my own, raised a biracial, polycultural child, and now belong to a family that is the “fusion chamber,” immigrant writer, Bharati Mukerjee once called America. My spouse was a Jewish American from Boston of French, German, Lithuanian, and Russian origins. Our son married a woman whose family—English, Irish, Dutch, and German—settled in California during the Gold Rush.
There is a predictable American origin story to this family, a single binding narrative of displacement from another place and planting roots in this one, that moves me. I write traces and threads of them into characters in my novels. The cultural differences between them, and the similarities, interest me enough to add the bone and marrow of some of them to my novels’ characters.
Beyond family, we are articles and particles of community and the wider world. Few of us live in hermetically-sealed, homogeneous environments. The level of a writer’s engagement with the world informs her novels. Sometimes, a particular issue resonates and vibrates until one manifests a character to tell a story. In The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki Shikibu writes: “Again and again, something in one’s life or in the life around one, will seem so important that one cannot bear for it to pass into oblivion. There must never come a time, the writer feels, when people do not know about this.”
The premise of a novel is a found object, the spark of an idea, discovery. English writer, Graham Greene wrote “The Quiet American,” a novel about American intervention in Vietnam after observing covert US military actions in Vietnam, while working as a journalist in Saigon. Nadine Gordimer, a White South African wrote fifteen novels about Apartheid’s impact on Black and White South Africans. They made meaning out of the confounding complexity of what they found and felt.
I imagine that Ms. Cummins felt this way when she began thinking about her novel. Pillorying her for discovering the first crumbs of a fictional universe, following the trail, working for seven years to animate her fictional landscape and characters, and successfully selling her novel, seems unreasonable. Criticize writers for glib novels; poorly-rendered, stilted, stunted racial stereotypes; and bad writing. Condemn publishers for ignorance and poor taste, lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry that leads to literature for White consumption, and for corrupting literature with their mercenary tendencies. But demanding that writers racially profile their characters and narrate only a writer's own heritage or culture is a stunning position.
A novel’s characters come unbidden, sometimes sprung almost like from the head of Medusa, fully formed and directing their own actions, others are vague and unknown until they’re written into being over the course of a book, still others surprise through their own agency, changing age, gender, race, nationality, and other aspects of themselves. They don’t always look or talk like the writer or have the writer’s lived experience. Certainly, a novel is not disconnected from the narrative and experience of a writer’s own singular experience. But fiction is not memoir or journalism—lived or viewed experience. It is expansive, universal, refracted, reflected. In my novel, Liberty Landing, my characters include Gabriel Khoury, a Palestinian Christian businessman from Iqrit, Galilee born in a refugee camp in Lebanon, who rejects history in favor of titles, deeds, possession, and profit; Angeline Lalande, a Creole historian -- a descendant of one of the first seven slaves brought to Louisiana from Nevis in the West Indies; Bruce Halliday, an Australian beer master and newly-minted Hollywood reality TV star who crashes, burns, and reinvents himself in my fictional city; Eva Krohle, a psychologist at a rehabilitation center that serves torture survivors from around the world; and Tina Trang, a Vietnamese landowner who, as an infant, was on the last Chinook helicopter that took off from the US Embassy roof in Saigon in 1975. They are not cultural tropes or cultural misappropriations but characters who have filtered through my consciousness, assuming aspects of my psyche or people I have known, or imagined, or read about. Fiction is reality shocked by electricity and fantasy that says something true and epic about our lives before we die. I narrate the exploits of my characters in Liberty Landing, people not like me, with care and respect: "This is how we journey, cross borders, risk our hearts, give our lives, find home and heaven in people. A footfall at a time, in faith, in hope, in love. Our stories inside us. Inside each other." Et voila! Our stories inside us. Inside each other. How shrunken and sad literature would be if novelists only wrote characters like themselves, who lived only their own limited experience. Ref: Gail Vida Hamburg, author of The Edge of the World (Mirare Press, 2007) and Liberty Landing (Mirare Press, 2018), finalist for the 2016 PEN-Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, first volume in a trilogy about the American Experience. The second, The Settlers, is forthcoming.